German Rauchbier or smoked beer is a distinctively smoke flavored beer made from barley malt dried over an open flame. The best known Rauchbiers are made in Bamberg Germany, though a number are brewed outside of Germany as well. This week, we’ll take a look at the history of Rauchbier as well as how to brew your own smoky beer at home.
Prior to the 18th century, malts were commonly dried over an open flame so many (though not all) of the beers from the 1700’s and earlier had a smoky flavor to them. Brown malt was in fact the standard malt for brewing, and as it was dried over an open wood flame, almost all brown malt was smoky in flavor. Only a few beers (notably those made from barley bread) lacked a smoky undertone.
In the 1700’s, at the dawn of the industrial age, kilning malt over coal fed fires became popular and pale malt was born, giving us pale malt and the smoke free flavor beer drinkers enjoy today. Smoke flavored beers (which included the original Porters) largely died out in the 1800’s, being replaced by paler ales and continental lagers. However a few breweries, notably the Franconian city of Bamberg in Northern Bavaria, clung to the tradition of their smoky beers.
The defining Rauchbier is arguably Aecht Shlenkerla Rauchbier made by Heller-Brau Trum KG. The name “aecht” is a Franconian play on the German “echt” which means “true” or “original”. It is brewed and aged much like a Marzen. They also brew a Rauchweizen which is a smoky Weissbier, a Lager that is a smoky Helles-blonde and Urbock and Doppelbock (Fastenbier) seasonal variants.
While Aecht Shlenkera is the “gold standard”, a number of other breweries in Bamberg and the surrounding areas make Rauchbier, and the style has been imitated by craft breweries around the world.
The Rauchbier Style
Rauchbier is a Marzen/Oktoberfest style lager with a sweet, smoky aroma and flavor and slightly darker color. The degree of smoky flavor varies from mild to intense, but like a Marzen the beer is malty in balance, rich, and may have a slightly toasted character. It should have moderate to low hop bitterness that just balances the malty character. The smoky flavor often enhances the dry finish. The lager finish should be clean with no fruity esters, diacytl or DMS present. According to the BJCP style guide, harsh, bitter, burnt, charred, rubbery, sulfery or phenolic smoke flavor is inappropriate.
As mentioned above, it is possible to create smoked versions of Weiss, Blondes, Helles, Bocks and other German styles, and even most traditional English ales and porters were at one time made with smoked brown malt, though these would likely not be considered traditional Rauchbier.
Original gravity is in the 1.050-1.057 range, with final gravity in the 1.012-1.016 range which leads to an alcohol by volume range of 4.8-6.0%. Color ranges from a mild 12.0 SRM to dark 22.0 SRM, and bitterness is in the range of 20-30 IBUs. Rauchbier is typically moderate to highly carbonated (2.4-2.8 vols of CO2).
Brewing a Rauchbier
German Rauchmalz, which is a Vienna style malt smoked over beechwood is the defining ingredient for a Rauchbier. Weyermann malting, also located in Bamberg, provides much of the world’s commercially used Rauchmalz. The grain bill typically includes anywhere from 20-100% of this smoked malt. In fact, most Schlenkerla Rauchbier’s are made entirely from smoked malt that they kiln themselves with no other additives. The balance of the malt bill is typically split between munich malt and pale 2-row malt, often a roughly 50-50 split. 10-15% Vienna malt is occasionally added as well. For extract recipes, find a Munich extract base, and add 10-20% steeped Rauchmalz.
The adventurous brewer can try to smoke their own malt, though the results will not be exactly the same as kilning the malt with smoke. Randy Mosher’s book “Radical Brewing” recommends smoking on a kettle type grill or smoker using some window screen to keep the malt from falling in. Use a very small fire (8 charcoal lumps) and then put a handful of water soaked wood chips on the coals and close the lid. He recommends 30-120 minutes of smoking, and beechwood is the traditional wood to use, though you can use just about any wood depending on the flavor you are targeting. Cool the malt and use it as you normally would.
As with Marzen, Rauchbier uses either noble hops or Bavarian hops such as Saaz, Tettnanger or Hallertauer. Hops are primarily added for bittering to balance the malty flavor, and rarely added as aroma or dry hops in this style, as it has minimal hop aroma or flavor in the finished product. The bitterness ration for this beer runs between 0.5-0.6 BU/GU.
A single step infusion mash is fine for this beer with conversion in the mid range (around 151-154F), though true German traditionalists may want to opt for the triple decoction mash. Water treatment is rarely needed.
Marzen/Oktoberfest lager yeast or Bavarian lager yeasts are typically used for this style, though other German lager yeasts may work as well depending on the variant you are brewing. Ferment at around 50F, and age near freezing (33-37F) for at least 4-5 weeks.
Rauchbier Recipe (All Grain)
Here’s a sample recipe from my stock – it provides a nice moderate example of the style. Additional recipes are available on the BeerSmith Recipe Page.
- 6 lbs Pale (2 row) malt
- 4 lbs Smoked Malt (Wyermann)
- 2 lbs Munich Malt
- 1.25 lb Caramunich Malt (color and richness)
- 1.75 oz Hallertauer hops
- 1 Pkg Oktoberfest/Marzen (White Labs WLP820) yeast
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